The Catskill Mountain House, 1823-1963

Poem by Lisa Mullenneaux

Thomas Cole <i>A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning</i>, 1844

I stand on Thomas Cole’s farmhouse porch 

at the Catskill interchange and see a treeless scar

that marks the railway’s climb up the escarpment.

 

Carriages stalled on that incline, horses died, 

the gentry got contusions until Otis’ cable cars 

hoisted guests 2,200 feet, lifted them up

 

a hair’s breadth from Heaven with dignity 

and dry boots. Under the hotel’s Greek portico

if skies were clear they could admire 

 

how far they’d come by sloop or steamer 

upriver from Manhattan to Catskill Landing until

a bell jangled supper and balsam-scented sleep.

 

Cole didn’t invent the great hotel,

its matchless view, its 13 Corinthian columns. 

He invented the need for it. Shinning chasms, 

 

rucking under ledges to rise at dawn, he set out 

his easel, flute, canvas chair, bladders of pigments

to trace silvery firs beside the yellow water lilies.

 

Unpainted, the forest was howling anarchy; 

he gave it gravity, vowing If I can fix in time

that moment before the ax falls, before

 

the Iron Horse shrieks, before a shadow is cast

on the land, I can animate Eden. Burnt-over fields, 

stinking tanneries? Cole didn’t see them. Only

 

the granite outcrops of a devil’s tombstone, 

clenched boulders of a preacher’s iron jaws. 

Garreted on Greenwich Street, the forest floor rose 

 

in burnt umber, skies in Antwerp blue, 

skiffs cadmium red, lakes ultramarine. Cole brushed in 

feather ferns, rustic huts, an Indian scout.  

 

Even copper-hearted barbarians deserve

their metaphors and tickets up the rock face. 

Soon they were baiting caged black bears, 

 

carving their names in rock. Actresses, 

presidents, plantation owners, verse scribblers

came to be awed and suck pure air. 

 

Forget the Continent. Here was genus loci, 

Natty Bumppo’s backyard with a stag 

in the clearing and rainbowed falls. 

 

I stand on the precipice that hangs above 

our old-new world. No colonnades affront infinity; 

no roast duck and Madeira; no ballrooms draped

 

with balsam firs—all vanished but the view 

that draws pilgrims with dome tents and grills. 

Oil tankers crowd the river, trucks meet them

 

at the Landing where Cole himself once landed 

on the forest’s ragged hem, the crook-

backed mountains bidding him west.